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Chuck Wendig Interview: What in the blue blazes is Chuck Wendig up to? – Part One

Chuck WendigA self-described freelance penmonkey, Chuck Wendig has written novels, screenplays, and games. And over the past ten years, he has built up quite a following on his blog, TerribleMinds. There you’ll find rants, ravings, the occasional recipe, and advice about the art and business of writing.

As Fantasy-Faction is a home for readers, writers, and lovers of fantasy, and as Chuck’s latest book, The Blue Blazes, is being published very soon, it seemed like the perfect time for us to sit down with Chuck.

Why don’t we get started with you telling readers a bit about The Blue Blazes?

Sure. I like to say that The Blue Blazes is the criminal underworld meets the mythical, monsters underworld. Hell comes up, and the one line of defense is the lowest cast of human society, the criminal world. Standing at the crux of this is this thug character, Mookie Pearl, who has his own problems in dealing with both sides of the coin, and also his daughter, who is a late teenager. She is, let’s just say, coming up against him. She is trying to oppose him in all of those criminal endeavors. So suddenly now he’s got this third player who is his own daughter. It’s all about how he negotiates that. And a grander conspiracy unfolds where the entire city of New York is in danger.

I will admit that outside of TerribleMinds, this is my first exposure to your novels. Is this as a good entryway to your work?

Blackbirds (cover)Yeah, for some people, Blackbirds is a little acerbic. It’s a dark, a little angry, a little vulgar. It’s still labeled as urban fantasy, but probably a little more noir and horror shoved together. [The Blue Blazes] is a little more classically urban fantasy. It has some of the scenes of horror, but it also has, I like to think—at least I like to hope—some robust worldbuilding, and some of the tropes of fantasy turned on their heads.

So Mookie Pearl will not be on the cover of the book in leather pants showing some butt cheek, just as an FYI.

In another interview with 52 Book Reviews, I had read that one of the ideas for this story had originated with a childhood hallucination. Is that typically how you put together your stories? A piece from here? A memory from there? A “what if” from somewhere else?

[laughing] Kinda, yeah, yeah. Things sort of happen in life, and you can choose to remember them and write them down and hang onto them for a long time. Or you can just let them go. For me, a lot of the stories I write, I don’t get an idea one week and the next week I’m writing. They’re usually building for a year or more. In this case, it’s been building since I was a stupid little kid shoving my thumbs in my eyes. So they all kind of happen that way—usually not quite that much length between the time of inception and the time of culmination of writing the story.

With that being said, I wondered if you did any research for this story. Did you meet any real Sandhogs? Did you pull out an old Monster Manual or something like that?

The Blue Blazes (cover)I really wanted to meet Sandhogs. My wife wanted to actually go down, if at all possible. But that’s the sort of thing they don’t let you do anymore. Theoretically, they once let you, but now—and this actually sort of worked its way into the story—given the sensitive nature of what the Sandhogs do, and how they are really the highest paid union members in all of New York City, both the EPA and Homeland Security watch them very carefully. They are going literally under the streets of New York City with incredible amounts of dynamite. And they are handling the entire water supply of the city.

It was in the research for the book that I sort of came up not only with the Sandhogs, but what they do below and how intensely dangerous that is for them—“a man a mile” as they say—and also how dangerous it is for the city above their heads if something goes wrong. They can blow a water tunnel, and the city is out of water. They can blow a subway tunnel, and it may collapse an entire block of New York City.

I wondered as I read how much of that was based on fact, and how much was stretching it for the story.

What they do and what it looks like, that stuff’s all fact. Obviously, the part where there are also monsters, and the Sandhogs are secret guild of monster fighters beneath the city—I may have been stretching that just a tiny bit. But in general, the actual other details are, I think, fairly close to the truth.

And some of the attitude that I give to the Sandhogs is stuff that I know. My family is a very blue-collar family. On my mother’s side, they were miners. My father’s side was farmers. So some of the attitude seeps into there. I like to write about the blue-collar thing. I don’t also like to write about intellectual, lofty stuff. I like to put magic in the hands of people who are a bit more crass and blunt rather than academic.

I have heard you describe yourself as a “pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity.” So with a lot of the themes that are in The Blue Blazes, whether it’s family, the consequences of bad decisions, or keeping control of things, do these themes tend to develop for you in the outlining stage, or as you write, or even in the revision stage?

Some of them start in the outline, just as I start to write things down. The outline for me is initially just about plot, because plot is my biggest problem. It becomes easier when I figure out that plot really is like Soylent Green: it’s totally made of people. They’re the ones doing things, and things happen as a result.

A lot of plots will feel that these characters are a certain way, and they perform and act in a certain way, but then they do things that are against their character because the storyteller is the one who is creating the plot—and while that’s technically always true because the storyteller is the one doing it—it should be the engine of the characters’ decision and their wants and fears and all that stuff.

So as I sort of chart what the characters are doing to accomplish their goals and what the complications are from other characters—because really a plot is often just characters pushing on each other to achieve, or not achieve, certain goals—some of those themes start to get teased out. But then as you write it too, no outline, no matter how robust, is ever going to detail all the little fiddly bits. It’s not going to tease out all the dialogue and all the actual physical action that his happening. In the outline, you may feel like, “They fight.” But in the actual fight, you start to see how the character starts to act in that scene. So it’s not like it robs it of any kind of magic or creativity. So you do start to see those teased out more. You also start to see new things, different things. You start taking detours from the outline.

The Blue Blazes actually took some significant detours away from the outline, so I re-outlined upon the second draft.

Did you just kind of hit a dead end, or you had a better idea?

No, I just had better ideas. There were no dead ends. It was moving forward okay, but there were just better ideas that presented themselves. And in the second draft, they became even more important. Things with Nora. I really hit on Nora more as a character.

Whether from the TerribleMinds or the novels, you do have a reputation for salty language, shall we say.

[Laughing] Briny.

And while that is certainly present in The Blue Blazes, I was actually more struck by the similes and metaphors that you used. Sometimes you see these a lot in noir, but I found yours to be very creative and very colorful.

Mockingbird (cover)Thank you. I love metaphors, man. There are some authors out there that create great metaphors, like Joe Lansdale. I’ve had people that tell me, “Well, you gotta cut down a little on metaphors,” but then I look at his work, and he’ll have a page of text with three or four high-test, high-octane, out-of-nowhere metaphors. But they totally work.

I mean, if a metaphor fails, it becomes very awkward. It’s like watching a ballerina fall on her face. It’s like she really tried to go for it, but it really didn’t pan out. I love that sort of stunting you can do—that language, poetics stunting. It’s probably not wise, I should probably pull back on the metaphor thing, but I can’t help it.

And in a book like The Blue Blazes, and maybe to more of a degree in Blackbirds, it just seems to fit. But when I did a young adult novel, I pulled back on the metaphors there, because I didn’t want to overwhelm with style. But sometimes I think an injection of style, especially in a noir world pays off. Maybe.

Is that something you find comes naturally because you like it so much, or that you have to really work at it, or do you keep a file of them?

It generally comes naturally. It happens easily in the unfolding of the writing. Every once in a while, I will hit something where I know what I want to say, but my brain is like a mouse eating a rag. Stuff just falls through these holes. I’m trying to think of the perfect thing, but I can’t. So I will usually just leave it then and come back to it in the second draft, when maybe I’ll tease it out.

Check back on Thursday for part two of our interview with Mr. Wendig.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Wayne Kelly says:

    Great interview and I’m looking forward to reading part 2.

    I am currently in middle of #15kinmay writing challenge trying to finish first draft of a novel and the stuff about deviating from an outline and never hitting dead ends is particularly inspiring! All good author interviews should inspire other writers to get back to the page – and this one hit the spot. Weird to read something from Chuck that was profanity-free though!

    Kelly’s Eye – Writing, Music, Life

  2. Avatar Charlemagne says:

    Great interview—well done Eric! Is was entertaining and informative, and has strengthened my resolve to purchase The Blue Blazes when it is released!

    I particularly like Chuck’s simile about bad metaphors. I actually laughed out loud there!

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